They must be doing something right. Bridal Cave continues to inspire awe and help create treasured memories under the same ownership as when it opened 70 years ago as many other family attractions have come and gone over the decades of Lake of the Ozarks.
Bridal Cave & Thunder Mountain Park is celebrating a milestone in 2018 after forming as a business on April 14, 1948 and opening for tours on October 16, 1948.
They are kicking off celebrations with a gathering of tour guides from over the years, many of whom were local high school or college kids at the time. It will be a time to swap stories as well as provide free tours for the former employees. There will be celebrations in October around the anniversary of the opening of the cave which will aim more at the public.
But it has been the employees who have been one of the keys to success at Bridal Cave over all these years, said General Manager and Vice President Steve Thompson. Forty-three years ago, he himself started out as a tour guide with a young family, lured away from being a bellman at the big resorts by the promise of year-round employment.
“I thought it was such a cool place. It was like working at a national park. I’ve met people from all over the world and worked my way up,” says Thompson who is now also a stockholder. “We’ve had some great employees over the years. A lot of high school and college kids, some senior citizens too. We’ve had some really good people who have a love for what they do and it shows.”
Former Bridal Cave tour guides have gone on to become everything from TV producers and restaurant owners to judges and lawyers and corporate executives, says Thompson.
Over the years, Thompson says the great working attitude of employees, who come to work with a positive attitude to take care of guests, has helped make the attraction the great environment it is for visitors.
“You know when folks go on vacation, they’re kind of stuck with family 24 hours a day for three or four days. So there can be some tension, but then they come and you see them relaxing and the kids getting into it, and they’re making life-long memories. And that’s why they come back with their children or their grandchildren,” says Thompson.
The success of the attraction is about that family feeling and the ability to adapt to changes in tourism, according Thompson.
While Bridal Cave is the unchanging showpiece, many family-friendly fun activities have been added over time to accommodate these trends — panning for gemstones and a nature trail, for example, family photos and a rock and mineral shop. Landscaping has been done on the grounds to include some small waterfalls. And now, the visitors center has been freshly remodeled for the big anniversary with double the parking.
Changing up tour styles has also been part of keeping up with the times. Last year, LED lantern tours with guides talking about some of the history of the cave were added. They have also been focusing more on the science of caves and the local geology, says Thompson.
“Twenty years or so ago, historic attractions were a big deal so we revamped for an historic tour, then 10 to 15 years ago, people became more environmentally conscious, wanted to know about things like groundwater. So we developed a science tour. The trend now for millennials is they want to get kids out of the house and away from the phones and computers and get back to nature. The Lake is known for its scenery. We’re close to Ha Ha Ha Tonka so definitely fall into that,” says Thompson.
Bridal Cave now offers a Kids Discovery Tour that includes a walk through Thunder Mountain Park with hands-on learning exercises as well as a tour of the site’s “other cave.”
Bear Cave has been open to the public for many years now as well, but was left in its natural state to help educate about wild cave experiences.
The discovery tour is popular for school field trips, one off the mainstays for the attraction. Thousands of elementary students are now the norm every year compared to earlier times when they hosted many senior trips.
While trends come and go, the beauty of Bridal Cave always remains though.
For someone who has never been there, the most surprising thing about this cave is really its natural beauty, according to Thompson.
“The cave is incredibly pretty. It’s amazing what water does. There’s all the colors of the rainbow and it’s all completely natural. We just have white lights. There’s no colored lighting. It will surprise you at how pretty it is,” he says.
The primaries of the company then included Jim Banner, Lester Wilkerson and B.F. Krehbiel, according to historical information provided by the business. Joined by Lee Farmer in the 1905s, members of these families are still the main owners of Bridal Cave and its surrounds today.
The first recorded exploration of the now popular show cave took place in the 1850s and would become part of the Ha Ha Tonka estate in the early 1900s.
A noted developer of show caves, Krehbiel would purchase the land where Bridal Cave is located in 1947. He had already been key to opening other caves in the Ozarks, including Stark Cavern and Ozark Cavern. He also ran Fantastic Caverns in Springfield for some time.
“It was kind of his hobby, caves and nature,” says Bridal Cave General Manager/Vice President Steve Thompson. “But this was his favorite. He sold the others, but kept Bridal Cave.”
It wasn’t just the tour guides who have been the employees who have helped make the attraction what it is today.
While thousands are familiar today with the smooth paths and boardwalks of Bridal Cave, it took six months of work by two large crews to be able to open the cave to the public.
Not only did they have to excavate the cave, they had to build the road to it from Old Highway 5, bringing with them power lines.
With no road to the site, the cave crew came by boat to dig out an easily-accessible entrance for the cave, putting in at the Highway 54 Niangua Bridge to reach the dock near Bridal Cave. One of the first things built was actually the boat dock, a necessity just to get workers on-site.
In the beginning, the cave had just a small entrance and had to at first be dug-out by hand.
It was hard work, but an opportunity for locals at the time.
“People don’t realize it now, but we were three of the poorest counties in the state of Missouri at that time so any job you could get was a good job,” says Thompson who has become well-versed in local history over the years.
With timber all clear cut in the area to transport and sell to the east and west coasts and for railroads, by 1940s, there wasn’t much industry left and no arable land for growing much of anything.
While some might think the cave got its name because of plans to hold weddings there — now a popular attraction to the cave — the underground wonder was actually named Bridal Cave as it was called by locals at the time.
The name goes back to an Indian legend and book published by Col. R.G. Scott. Called Bridal Cave even in the 1890s, Scott purchased the cave as part of a massive 5,400-acre tract in the 1890s. His book, “Indian Romances,” is credited as the first to publish the legend that the cave got its name from the marriage ceremony of an Indian prince and princess.
The owners didn’t anticipate people wanting to get married in Bridal Cave, but after many requests, the first wedding ceremony — at least of modern times — was held there on June 1, 1949. Mr and Mrs. Basil Cole from Sedalia were the first, but there have now been nearly 3,600 wedding performed at Bridal Cave since.